Fruit trees and small fruits Pollination

Fruit Trees: It Usually Takes Two

For many fruit trees, you need more than one cultivar in order to ensure a good harvest. Photo: Murtagh’s Meadow, Bev Sykes, Wikimedia Commons & Clipart Library

Tempted by the idea of growing your own fruits? It can be very rewarding and is not all that difficult, but … you first have to have some inkling of the curious sex habits of fruit trees and small fruits.

It Takes Two to Tango

Cross-pollination is mandatory for the vast majority of temperate-climate fruits including apples and most plum, cherry and pear trees. These plants are “self-sterile”, that is to say, their pollen won’t fertilize their own flowers and they therefore need another compatible variety for cross-pollination in order to produce fruit.

For example, the pollen from a ‘Liberty’ apple tree can’t fertilize the flowers of the same tree or of any other ‘Liberty’. However, if you plant a different cultivar nearby, in fact, pretty much any apple cultivar (‘Novamac’, ‘Priscilla’, ‘Macfree’, etc.), it will pollinate a ‘Liberty’ apple, allowing it to produce abundant fruit. 

So, for easy fruit production, the simple solution is to always plant two or more cultivars of any fruit tree. 

Kissing Cousins

Of course, the pollen must come from a closely related plant. All cultivated apples (Malus domestica) are very close relatives and can cross-pollinate. Note too that crabapples are also apples, just small-fruited ones, and they too can pollinate apple trees. That’s why, in many suburbs where crabapples are commonly planted, it isn’t always necessary to plant a second apple tree for an abundant harvest: bees will simply carry the needed pollen from a neighboring crabapple. 

Pear tree in bloom.
It takes another pear tree to pollinate a pear tree. Photo: HemNorth, garden.org

But the trees have to be really close relatives to cross-pollinate. Although pears (Pyrus spp.) are related to apples, their pollen will not fertilize the flowers of an apple tree, or vice versa. However, as with apples, most pears (Pyrus communis) are self-sterile and must be pollinated by another pear.

In the case of plum and cherry trees (both are in the genus Prunus), the situation is more complex: again, most are self-sterile, but in general they need plants of the same species for pollination to occur, not just the same genus.

Take plums, for example. There are three main types used in home gardens. European plums (Prunus domestica) can pollinate other European plums, Japanese plums (P. salicina) can pollinate other Japanese plums and American plums (P. nigra and P. americana) can pollinate other American plums. But just to complicate things even more, some American plums can pollinate certain European and Japanese plums! To make things simpler, though, just plant plums of the same species and you’ll always get good pollination.

Things are simpler with cherries: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) pollinate sweet cherries, sour cherries (P. cerasus) pollinate sour cherries, and just about any other cherry (and there are dozens of species!) will pollinate cherries of its own species, but not others.

Cross-pollination is Not Always Necessary

For some fruits, cross-pollination is not required: sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) and European plums (P. domestica) are self-fertile (their own pollen will fertilize their flowers) and you therefore don’t need two different trees for a good harvest.

This is also true of most peaches (P. persica) and nectarines, the latter simply being peaches without the fuzz, although there are a few self-sterile varieties of peaches and nectarines, that is varieties that will require a pollinator. Apricots (P. armeniaca) are a mixed bag: some are self-fertile, some are self-sterile.

Most small fruits, too, are self-fertile and therefore even an isolated plant will bear fruit. The main exceptions here are haskaps, also called honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea) and some blackberries (Rubus spp.): they all require the presence of another cultivar for good fruit production.

Partially Self-Fertile: Just to Make Things Complicated!

In most categories of fruits that are generally self-sterile, there are exceptions. You’ll see the mention “partially self-fertile” in the descriptions of these plants. It means they can self-pollinate … under the right conditions. This is notably the case of most Asian pear cultivars (Pyrus pyrifolia), some European pears (‘Flemish Beauty’, ‘Bartlett’, ‘Anjou’ and a few others) and some apples (‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Braeburn’, ‘Granny Smith’, etc.).

Before declaring victory, however, be forewarned that partially self-fertile varieties generally produce fewer fruits when they are on their own. Yes, there will usually be some successful fertilization and even a few really good years, but most of these varieties still produce more faithfully if there is another variety nearby for cross-pollination. Thus, it is better to give these partially self-fertile varieties a partner if you want a good harvest every year.

Blueberries on the bush
Plant 3 cultivars of blueberries for an abundant harvest. Photo: backyardberryplants.com

As for blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium, V. corymbosum and others), they are mostly partially self-fertile and some are actually quite self-fertile. (Different species can sometimes cross-pollinate, at least in theory, but rarely flower at the same time, soooo…) Even so, you’ll generally have a better crop if you plant a second blueberry of the same type nearby. In fact, most growers recommend you plant at least three varieties of the same species of blueberry to ensure a good crop each year.

How Close is Close?

Even if you need a second fruit tree for pollination, the two trees don’t necessarily have to be planted side by side. The usual recommendation is to plant them within 50 to 100 feet (15 to 30 m) of each other. That means that a tree on a neighbor’s lot may well be close enough, allowing you to get away with planting just one tree.

If Space is at a Premium

Apple tree with 3 varieties on the same tree.
One way to ensure cross-pollination is to graft two varieties on the same tree! Photo: rogersspringhill.com

If your favorite fruit requires a pollinator and you don’t have space for a second tree, here are two possible solutions:

1. While your tree is in bloom, cut a branch from a compatible variety (you’ll need a friend who cultivates one) and place it in a vase of water at the foot of your tree. Bees will ensure the pollen gets transferred.

2. Or better yet, graft a branch of a different variety (of the same species, of course, like apple on apple, pear on pear) onto your tree. That way your tree will have a pollinator on hand every spring!

Check Before You Buy

Before buying a fruit tree, always check with the nursery to find out not only if the variety of your choice needs a different variety to ensure pollination, but even if there is an especially effective variety they can recommend to ensure its pollination.

Article adapted from one that originally appeared in this blog on May 29, 2015.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

4 comments on “Fruit Trees: It Usually Takes Two

  1. RAchel Carnes

    Thanks for the great info! Curiously I have one each of plum, apple (2) and 2 cherries. The plum bears fruit so I guess we are lucky there. My question is how do you keep the birds and squirrels from eating them? I tried net bags but the fruit just fell off. How do the professional orchards do it?

  2. Natives of the Santa Clara Valley who are older than I am know fruit trees; but the pollination of all those vast orchards of Bing cherries in Sunnyvale was something of a mystery. Most orchards were homogeneous, but were not so big that the trees in the middle were not adequately pollinated by adjacent homogeneous orchards of other cultivars. Some orchards had a few pollinator trees around their perimeters. Some of the larger orchards had a few pollinators added within. Of course, the pollinators became more important as the area became more urban, and orchards were removed. Anyway, we all remember the vast orchards of Bing cherries in Sunnyvale, or at least the remnants of those orchards. Decades earlier, they had been pollinated by comparable orchards of Montmorency cherries that were grown from Comstock cherry pie filling, which was canned nearby in Santa Clara. However, no one remembers the Montmorency cherries. The orchards were replaced with urban development a very long time ago. The Bing cherry orchards continued to produce for a few more decades after their pollinators were gone. We can only assume that a few Montmorency cherry trees remained somewhere nearby, perhaps within the orchards of Bing cherry trees. Alternatively, trees that seemed to be wild cherries may have been retained intentionally for pollination.

  3. Pingback: When Two Different Pears Cross, Does It Change their Taste? – Laidback Gardener

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